Autumn we borrowed from Latin autumnus ‘the harvest time of plenty.’ The ancient Romans deemed autumn related to the verb augere ‘to increase,’ because the crops increase and bestow their yield at harvest time. Some modern etymologists dismiss this explanation as quaint folk etymology. Some think it correct. Yet the newish and authoritative Oxford Latin Dictionary marks a relationship to the Latin verb augeo, augere, auxi, auctus as “doubtful.” The chief problem is the unusual disappearance of that first hard consonant. It is not customary for *auct to dwindle into aut-. So autumn may even be pre-Roman, perhaps a time-tweaked husk of Etruscan, a language that preceded the Romans into Latium.

Others say Romans originally named the fall season vertumnus from vertere ‘to turn,’ since it is the season when weather turns from warm to cold. But they kept getting their seasonal name vertumnus mixed up with an Etruscan god of the seasons named Vertumnus (similar in form but stemming from quite different Etruscan roots — we think).

Thus some etymologists claim that the Romans altered the first syllable and made the word autumnus. Such a transformation would be unique to Latin word formation. Events that appear to be unique in linguistic history, that lie far beyond the common rules of phonological evolution and deduced derivation, are to be treated with initial caution. It is perhaps best to settle for etymologist Eric Partridge’s shrug on the subject of the word autumn: ‘o.o.o.’ — of obscure origin. Fall, now chiefly North American for the season when leaves fall, did begin in England as a synonym for autumn in the middle of the sixteenth century.

A season in Old French, seson, was a time of sowing, from the Latin noun satio, sationis ‘seed-time.’ The labels of our seasons like summer and winter are among the oldest words in English, except for autumn.

Harvest is a modern English reflex of an ancient Proto-Indo-European stem widespread in Germanic and Scandinavian languages. In Old English it was hærfest or hęrfest, in modern Dutch herfst, modern German Herbst, Old Scandinavian haust, modern Swedish and Danish host. The Germanic etymon may have been something like *harƀisto-z, perhaps from a root *harƀ- and that would make it cognate with the familiar Latin verb carpĕre ‘to pluck, to pick fruit, to crop’ comparable with ancient Greek καρπός karpos ‘fruit, literally ‘thing picked, plucked off, cut off’ with its many derivatives in modern botanical English like endocarp, pericarpium and that pretty houseplant of the African violet family, streptocarpus.

The old Roman verb appears in one of the most commonly quoted scraps of Latin poetry by Horace, carpe diem ‘pluck the flower of the day’s opportunities.’ Carpe diem does NOT mean “seize the day!”

The Greek word for human wrist is a similar word καρπός karpos but from an entirely different PIE root, namely *kʷerp- ‘to turn’ akin to Proto-Germanic *hwerbaną ‎ ‘to turn’ and to English wharf. That different Greek root gives us English anatomical terms like carpal, metacarpals and carpal tunnel syndrome.

The PIE reflexes of the harvest root also include ancient India’s Sanskrit kṛpāṇa ‘sword, literally ‘cutting implement,’ Sanskrit kartati ‘he cuts’ and Sanskrit krpani ‘shears,’ literally ‘cutting tool.’

Also cognate is ancient Greek keirein ‘to cut, to shear, to bind harvested crops into sheaves' which are crops sheared. This etymology renders all the more apt that splendid old harvest hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves.” Since it is one of my favorite hymns, I repeat the lyrics here:

“Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves;
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

That fine old harvest anthem was written in 1874 by Ohio preacher Knowles Shaw, noted composer of gospel hymns and a member of the Disciples of Christ. Shaw got the song idea from his comprehensive knowledge of the King James Bible, namely from Psalm 126, verse six: “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”

Our English verb shear is akin to Latin cernere ‘to sift, to separate’ and Latin curtus ‘short, cut short’ as in our English adjective for someone too “short” in speech, that is, too curt.

Many are the choice words for harvest in world languages. I will give only one especial delight, the Catalan word for harvest is Tardor, literally ‘the late time of the year’ from soldiers’ Latin tardus ‘late,’ which through French gives us the English adjective tardy. Harvest Home is no new fall celebration. It’s been around since the 1570s CE. A harvest moon is a lunar plenitude, a moon that is full within a fortnight of the autumnal equinox.

I save the sweetest jewel in my quote-box for the last, John Keats’ “Ode to Autumn.”

I deem it one of the most perfect short poems in the English language.

The English Romantic poet composed the three stanzas on September 19, 1819, after a late afternoon walk through English fields of early autumn. One year later Keats died in Rome. The poem was published in 1820. Keats’ personification of Autumn as a deity of the fall season, benign and prone to bestowal of harvest gifts, but at a cost, is superb. Keats' thought and metaphorical dexterity are robed in the richest brocade English may offer.

 “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies."

Bill Casselman, revised Sept 23, 2017

My prose COPYRIGHT 2017 by William Gordon Casselman

The quoted passages are in the public domain.


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